This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on Jul 8, 2013
Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a Japanese-American author is visiting the area.
“There are people surfing. It’s just like my home in California. And it’s such a beautiful day. It’s really hard to imagine that this ocean, this very beautiful peaceful looking ocean could have turned into a monster so quickly.”
(Marie Mutsuki Mockett)
Although Marie was born and raised in the United States, she spent time in the Tohoku region during her childhood; memories of its culture and the natural environment are still deeply ingrained inside her.
On this trip, Marie will focus on the “souls” of those who survived the earthquake and still live in the region; their grief for loved ones, and the anxiety about what the future holds for them. Tending to those with troubled souls is now one of the most pertinent issues.
Marie meets some of those who are lending an ear to earthquake victims and trying to help mend their broken hearts.
Through these activities, a religious perspective unique to Japan has come to light: respect for ancestors, mourning those who have left us behind, and speaking to their souls. Marie has decided to write a novel about these aspects of Japanese culture based on her experiences in Tohoku.
“It reveals something unique about the Japanese. And so that is the approach that I’m hoping to take. Be some of the religious and some of the spiritual frameworks.”
Two years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami in which more than 18,000 people were killed or went missing. Marie Mutsuki Mockett is here to observe the survivors living face to face with life and death.
Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture was doubly devastated, first by the tsunami, and then by the nuclear power station meltdown.
More than 400 lives were lost in tsunamis as high as seven meters. Then immediately after the meltdown, half the population had to temporarily evacuate.
Marie also visited this area immediately after the disaster.
“So when I was here, two years ago I came, but we weren’t be able to drive all this way. I think some of this road was closed. So I remember this scenery. When I came two years ago it was in July, so it was about 4 months after the Tsunami. And so there was still quite a lot of concerns about radiation, and I remember at that time he hadn’t been anywhere, or been outside of the house because everybody was trying to stay indoors.”
Marie has previously written about Japan in a novel with a Japanese woman as the protagonist. The book was nominated for a prestigious international literary award.
Just four days after the earthquake, Marie wrote an essay for the New York Times regarding the sheer magnitude of the disaster and her concerns about the victims. She has been interested about whether the minds of Japanese have changed since the disaster, and if so in what way.
First, Marie visits a temple in Iwaki.
She’s welcomed by Sempo Mita, a priest at the temple who is her relative.
Marie used to spend every summer at this temple.
For the young Marie, born and raised in the United States, the time she spent here was full of new and surprising experiences.
This is the journal she kept as a child. A Buddhist statue seen at the temple... A summer festival praying for a good harvest... From a tender age, she’s been closely acquainted with Japanese culture and norms.
“Ah, the smell of a temple!”
She pays respect to the main Buddhist statue of the temple.
Two years ago, Marie was extremely worried about Mita’s safety.
The nuclear power plant where the meltdown occurred is located about 40 kilometers from the temple. Many residents left the city to evacuate, but Mita decided to stay at the temple.
“I really wanted you to leave. I begged you to evacuate, didn’t I? Why didn’t you?”
“You have to remember that everyone entrusts their temple to be the protector of the local people’s ancestors because we take care of them, and also that we give hope to everyone. I think temples exist with this kind of relationship of trust within the community. If I had evacuated with the others, people would have felt very disappointed.”
The family grave is very important for the Japanese. They believe that their ancestors’ souls repose there, so they can visit to speak with them. They also believe that the souls of their ancestors will protect them.
Mita stayed here to protect the graves that many people come to pray to with no concern for his own safety.
Religious figures are still providing great support to the victims of the disaster.
The chanting of sutras echoes through the city that was engulfed by the tsunami.
They are religious figures praying for those who perished in the disaster.
They are here to care for the grieving souls of the survivors. The grief of losing their families, and the sheer trauma of the tsunami have not yet been healed. The Japanese government has sent psychological counselors, too. But there are still too few of them. This situation led Tohoku University to organize an opportunity for religious figures to come together.
The participants are from various faiths. They include Buddhists, Shintoists and Christians. Due to the traditionally polytheistic nature of Japan, differences in faith do not impede cooperation when necessary.
They’re holding an ad hoc meeting titled “Café de Monk” to lend an ear to victims of the disaster.
Taiou Kaneta, the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Miyagi Prefecture, organized the event. He’s been traveling around the disaster areas ever since the earthquake, listening to the worries of the victims.
“Hello. Nice to meet you. I’m Marie Mockett.”
“I’m Kaneda. Pleasure to meet you.”
(Taiou Kaneda: Priest of Tsudaiji temple)
At Café de Monk, he and the others will listen to the victims’ experiences over tea and snacks. Over 50 participants have come here today.
“We have several priests and people from other faiths here today. Please feel free to share with us whatever you feel comfortable sharing.”
It’s their policy to lend an ear to people’s everyday worries and thoughts.
There are a mother and daughter who managed to survive the tsunami.
“I didn’t realize what was going on.”
“I got on a later train than usual to go to school, and that saved me.”
“It would’ve been scary if you’d been on the usual one.
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the living and the dead? There must be some reason we are still alive. We were kept alive for a reason.”
Kaneda keeps listening to all their innermost anxieties about the tsunami.
“We were very close to dying. Just as we got inside, the tsunami gushed in on us. We were told to rush to the 3rd floor...”
(Woman attending at the cafe)
The key is to listen to whatever people say and accept everything. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian.
One woman has asked Kaneda to come to her home to hear her story in depth.
“Excuse me... Is this your mother?”
The woman lost her mother in the tsunami. She still regrets evacuating separately from her mother.
“One moment I cannot forget is when I told my mother about ‘Hotaru,’ the funeral parlor. I told her ‘I’ll be waiting at Hotaru. I remember her saying ‘okay’ through the window, and that was the last time I saw her...”
She says that her mother regularly visits her in her dreams.
“Her shadow comes right at me, crying, and says, ‘Why didn’t you tell me to run?’ It’s her shadow, her voice...I have to live my life remembering what happened...I still apologize to my mother every day...”
“I think we should recite a sutra...”
Kaneda begins reciting a sutra of Buddhist teachings.
A sutra is recited to give repose to the souls of those who have passed away, as well as to sooth the souls of those who were left behind.
“I’m sorry. Maybe she just wanted to talk to someone. There must be some meaning to this. The disaster was very painful, but I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even cry.”
“I understand. Very few people were crying back then.”
“I just...I couldn’t break up in front of my relatives...Thank you.”
“I guess there’s no-one that she can talk to in such a focused way. She couldn’t let out her innermost feelings.”
“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”
Is there something that only religion can provide?
“Matters to the afterlife, perhaps? Religious leaders can speak about that. But life, about innermost feelings, there are feelings that those left behind feel that they can’t speak about, especially in the world we live today. These are illogical things that cannot really be explained by logic and rationality. I think that is something we can offer to them... well, something we can try to offer them, I guess.”
Marie has realized that this is yet another aspect of religion.
“The spiritual problems that we have now are part of our modern world and irrespective of whether we live in Japan or in the west we face the same problems. And yet it’s very common in New York and in large cities and in America for people who are going through a difficult time to go to see a counselor or a therapist.And this is typically what people suggest you do. I’m always profoundly moved by how people in Japan are able to delve into a 1200 year old history to look for wisdom and inspiration, so that was very moving from today’s lesson.”
It’s not only at graves and temples that the Japanese come face-to-face with death. Marie has come to some caves along the beach in Iwaki City.
Lined up in front of the caves are hundreds of stone statues of Jizo, the guardian deity of children.
This is a place to pray for the repose of the souls of children that died young. Bereaved parents donate a Jizo statue in memory of their child, praying for their happiness in the next world.
On the day of the earthquake, the caves and these Jizo statues were engulfed by the tsunami and buried in the sand. But volunteers came to unearth them and clean them in respect for the parents who come here to pray for their lost children.
It’s said that the souls of children can be met in this cave. It’s an important place for the residents of the area.
“It was a very strange sound that I hear, of the wind going through this cave.”
“I think to life and to children and to loss and I feel like that there is particular sensitivity that people in Japan have that they are able to create a place like this for someone to come and experience their grief, revisit it if necessary. We don’t have anything like this in the States. We really don’t. You know, a lot of times people in the West have a stereotype of Japanese people as being reserved. And it’s just the opposite. People in Japan are highly emotional and very very sensitive. It’s just that they’re very careful about where they display their emotion. So a place like this is, you know, very full of intense grief and desire to be comforting.”
To feel the existence of the soul of someone that has passed away, Marie goes to meet someone who has had such an experience.
“Hello. Good morning. Nice to meet you.”
This is Ayane Suto.
In Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture, Ayane’s father was at this port when he was engulfed by the tsunami and went missing.
Tsutomu Suto was a radio technician on a fishing vessel. His family kept searching for him, but the days went by without any news of what had happened to him.
Then, seven days after the disaster, something strange occurred.
“I was invited by my friend to a public bath not far from here. As usual, I put my shoes in the shoebox, locked it, and went to a bath. When it was time to leave, I got my shoes out and when I put one of them on I realized I’d stepped on something soft. It was white and about this big—fairly big. It was a flower.”
“Are you sure you locked the locker?”
“Yes, I locked it. It had a solid door...”
“It is, isn’t it?”
Her father’s body was found soon after that. He was placed in a casket and Suto went to see him.
“On my father’s chest in the casket, there was a flower. It was the same kind of flower that I had found in my shoe. The white color of the flower...I still remember it very clearly.”
“How do you feel now when you think about the flower?”
“I don’t know...it reminds me of my father. And when I think about my father, the white flower comes to mind, as a set...”
“There are still many inexplicable things in the world, aren’t there?”
The white flower in Ayane’s shoe appeared seven days after the earthquake. It’s believed in Buddhism that it takes the deceased seven days from the time of death to reach the entrance to the next world.
“What did I think about the story about the white flower. And I’m inclined not to spend too much time wondering how and why that could happen, but just to think if it can give her any kind of comfort, and if it can remain a moment and which she can remember that her father loved her. She said that the family was very close. And it’s invisible. Even if the person’s alive, love is invisible. It’s still something you have to believe in.”
The Japanese people have started their way toward reconstruction. And the souls of those who died in the disaster will always be by their side.
“There is a great word in Japanese that people use when someone dies. It’s this word “wakare” - “parting” and I don’t think we refer it to the death and parting from a loved one quite the same way. But “owakare” implies a parting but there is still a chance to, I guess, occasionally visit with the person who’s gone.”
“I want you to understand these important beautiful wonderful things about Japan. And I want you to see these people as people and they are different from you. But some of the things that they value are very important, and I want you to understand that. And I feel like it becomes my responsibility to at least try to get that point across.”